Thursday, March 15, 2018

Baseball Is (Almost) Back! (2018 Edition)

Just like last year, here I write yet another paean to my most beloved of sports as it gets ready to join us in emerging from a long, cold, seemingly never-ending winter. As it does every year, baseball unofficially heralds the beginning of spring and the renewal of both warmer weather and your favorite team's new season. No matter how hopeless or bleak last season was, every spring brings no guarantees, but it does bring something all sports fan hold on to more than perhaps anything else: hope. Just as the newly begun year offers a clean slate, so does the start of a new baseball season. 

This year, I'm of course looking forward to what my Red Sox do this season, but I'm also excited to  watch and coach my kids. This spring I've got two daughters playing softball (one of whom will be playing for the first time) and a son playing baseball. My youngest daughter is playing softball for the first time (she tried tee-ball a couple of years ago) so it will be fun to watch her learn the sport. My oldest daughter is playing on two teams, a travel team and a rec team, and my son is also doing the two team thing (travel and rec). Both of them have been playing a while and put in a lot of extra work outside of practices and games. They're both very good and I'm excited to watch them play and cheer them on (and in the case of my son, I also get to coach him).

What about the Red Sox? By most measures they had a successful 2017, winning 93 games and their division in a carbon copy of 2016. However, just like they were in 2016, they were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs, this time in four games to the eventual World Series champion Houston Astros. Last season's team had a huge power vacuum in the first season following David Ortiz' retirement...they were last in the league in home runs and scoring. Several of their excellent young players (Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley, Xander Bogaerts) also had down seasons. However, Andrew Benintendi in his full rookie season was a revelation on offense and defense, and Rafael Devers showed in a few months that he will be another strong young addition to the lineup in 2018. I'm looking at their young stars to rebound and, combined with the free agent signing of slugger J.D. Martinez, the offense should get back to being close to what it was in 2016. Last season's pitching was surprisingly good overall, even with the regression of 2016 Cy Young winner Rick Porcello and the loss of David Price to injury. Newcomer Chris Sale led the way last year, leading the league in strikeouts and being dominant all season before fading in August and September. I'm looking for the pitching to stay strong, hopefully injury free (looking at you, Drew Pomeranz and David Price), and more consistent (especially the bullpen). In general, though, I'm most looking forward to a better attitude from the players which I believe that will happen since there is a new skipper. Perhaps the biggest change the Red Sox made in the offseason was at manager. They fired John Farrell, who despite "leading" the Sox to victory in the 2013 World Series, was never an inspiring leader or fan favorite. Much of the malaise around the team last season was due to his history of poor in-game management, coddling of the players, and his general unimpressive leadership demeanor in the dugout and off the field. There were also team chemistry issues with many of the players, mainly Dustin Pedroia and especially David Price. New manager Alex Cora was a member of the 2007 champion Red Sox and was a bench coach on last seasons champion Houston Astros. He's young, exciting, and brings a different style of leadership to the Red Sox clubhouse which, after last season, is sorely needed. Here's hoping that the attitude in the dugout and on the field improves and these guys focus more on winning ballgames and having fun, and less on what fans and the media is saying about them. Boston is a notoriously tough market for any athlete in any sport, but since Cora played here, he'll know how to navigate it and keep the team on an even keel. I just have a good feeling about him.

Even with the retooled and loaded (at least offensively) Yankees, I'm looking for the Red Sox to be right in the thick of things this season. Spring Training is in full swing and as the weather finally starts to warm up (at least where I'm living now...winter is certainly showing no signs of going away back home in New England) and as Opening Day gets closer, I feel the same way I do every year when baseball is almost back...like a little kid who can't wait for the season to start.

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